It’s going to be expensive.
In case you started reading this article hoping to hear otherwise, let me disabuse you of any such notions right now. Sports in America are a democratic phenomenon. We are a nation of public parks, of high-school coaching, of after-school programs staffed by volunteers. But at the so-called elite level, the level of national and international competition, the level where it becomes understandable that a young athlete would concentrate on one sport, we are a nation of elites, and the phenomenon is fueled by private coaches, private clubs, corporate sponsorship, and parental sacrifice.
Such is not the case elsewhere. Most countries in Europe have state-sponsored programs, even schools, for top-level athletes. Centralized governments like Russia’s and China’s, yearning for Olympic gold, aggressively seek out and train athletes beginning at a very young age.
There are obvious downsides to such systems, especially for the athletes who don’t excel internationally and are treated as shameful failures. At the same time, for the middle-class American parent with a wildly ambitious and reasonably talented child, the competition is daunting. At the age of nine or ten, a golfer or swimmer may pull away from the pack because of talent and focus. By the age of twelve or thirteen, all the golfers or swimmers at his or her level will be talented and focused, and it will be the ones with superior training and resources—including hefty financial resources—who pull away from that pack.
When my son Dan was playing his first national qualifying tennis tournament, in Albany, NY, a parent came up to where I sat on the sidelines. “What are you doing about him?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” I said. “I’m watching him. I’m encouraging him to play.”
“Are you moving to Florida?”
I stared at this woman, whose son, I think, had lost in the previous round. “Dan’s only nine,” I said.
“That’s when you start,” she said.
What Are the Costs?
Finding out how much it will cost to support an elite young athlete isn't easy. For instance, no one at the USTA could tell me the average family income for a nationally ranked player, nor the average family expenditure. Its literature, however, stresses that “supporting a junior player” (including, specifically, “logistical support” and “financial assistance”) is considered a “positive behavior,” whereas “being concerned with money," it warns, is a behavior "negatively influencing your child’s tennis experience.” Writes the USTA, “It is important that you think about your child’s goals and why he or she plays tennis. Reflect on your perspective of junior tennis and how it differs from a healthy perspective of developing the child.” Such guilt-provoking implications are hard for middle-class parents to bear. No wonder we all hear tales of parents taking out second mortgages or moving to France.
Cost estimates, moreover, rarely include time lost from work for the parent who accompanies the athlete to tournaments or matches; in fact, much parent-centered sports literature seems to assume one nonworking parent. Indeed, Richard Williams made the support of his daughters Venus and Serena his full-time job. For most of us, however, reducing or giving up full-time income increases the gap between what we can afford and what the sport seems to cost. Hiring a coach to travel with your child while you are working has the same effect and also takes you away from the sidelines.